Saturday, April 5, 2014

In a holding pattern

Mrs. Owl on Thursday.
It is April 5, and I am waiting for owlets. Waiting for snowmelt. Waiting for my ear infection to clear up. Waiting for so many things.

I hate this holding pattern--shouldn't we be living every moment, not sitting around hoping for other, different moments? But I have been sick for two weeks now, with a bad cold that turned into sinus infections and then an ear infection, and let me tell you, there are few things more painful than an ear infection. It is hard to embrace every moment when most moments it feels like someone is jabbing you in the eardrum with an ice pick.

And two weeks is a long time to be moping around, not feeling good. I sleep at odd hours, feel vaguely sick all the time, probably because of all the cold medicine/ibuprofin/antibiotics/phlegm. I am feverish, off and on. I am annoyed with myself for being so sick for so damn long.

Still, every day, twice a day, I walk the dogs. Being outside makes me feel better, even as it wears me out. And along our usual route I always look up to make sure Mrs. Owl is still in her spot, and she always is.  I'm getting concerned, though--I see no movement. Oh, she moves--she turns her head, she hunkers down deeper in the tree cavity, or she sits up higher and looks out. She opens or closes her eyes. She is not a cardboard cutout. She is real.

But I see no other activity--I don't see her looking down at owlets, or owlets clamoring to peer out the hole, or Mrs. Owl tearing off bits of rabbit to feed the babies. She just sits there in the same spot every day, ear tufts glowing in the morning sun, waiting.

We had a big snowstorm yesterday; I was home from work because of this stupid illness and I lay in bed and watched the snow fall fast past the window; we got about a foot, when all was said and done, but by mid-afternoon when I drove to Walgreens to pick up my antibiotics it had already started to melt. This week will finally be spring, apparently; today it was 45, tomorrow it will be nearly 60, by Wednesday maybe 70.  My ear infection will clear up, eventually. The owlets will emerge, or won't.

I should not be waiting for good things to happen. I should be living in the now, embracing--what? My cold? My cough? My fitful sleepless nights?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Three lovely things


It's very true that I was cranky yesterday, for most of the day. What can I say? I was cold. I have been cold all month. At the time of yesterday morning's walk the temperature wasn't even yet 10 degrees, and we kept it short in hopes of a longer walk later in the day, when it was warmer. It didn't get warmer, though; it got colder. The temperature rose a few degrees, but the wind kicked up brutal and biting, and when I headed out in mid-afternoon it felt like it was trying to rip my face off. Yes, my face. I took it personally. I got mad. I froze. I went home, where I flounced and sulked and whined the rest of the day.

This has been such a cold spring, colder even than last year's--and last year's was notable for five snowstorms in April and one in May. This spring has not been as snowy, but it has been much colder. Twenty degrees below normal, steadily, for all of March. A person can waste a lot of time whining.

And so this morning when we headed out with the dogs, I vowed I would change my attitude; I would find three lovely things amongst all of the crustiness and frozen slush and icy sidewalks and filthy snow and bitter wind.

I realize this sounds so Pollyannaish of me--obnoxious and sanctimonious and preachy; ("There's always something to be glad about!")--but I didn't decide this in order to endear myself to others. I decided it in order to whip myself into shape. I had already wasted one day of the weekend by pouting; I was not about to waste the other.

So off we went, bundled up in down and longjohns and wool, with the dogs, and I found three lovely things right away. They were  all togther, in one bird.


The bright red, the blue blue sky, and the gorgeous song. Oh, my, he was singing!

So every lovely thing after that was gravy.

Here's what we saw:


The owl, still on her nest. (That one is practically cheating; she's not going anywhere for some time.)



An active fox den, with hopes of seeing kits in another month or so. (The den itself is not particularly lovely, though it is fascinating; it is more anticipatory loveliness, hoping for babies.)



And, back home in the frozen and slick yard, a very intense little dog chasing her Frisbee.



(Such audacious ears!)

Next weekend, they tell us, the highs will be above freezing. First they said 55, but I knew better than to count on that and now they are saying 45. (Though I just looked again and it says 35, with snow.) but still. Thirty-five with snow is better than 11 with strong wind.

You might be wondering about the turkey picture---I took that with my cell phone (which I always want to call my telephone) last week on the way home from work, when I saw a whole gang of turkeys marching down River Road behind the U.  It is not a lovely thing I saw today, but it is a lovely thing that I saw, and a reminder that if I quit sulking, dress warm, and go outside, I am certain to see something that will make me happy. (There's always something to be glad about.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

At the owl tree

On Friday morning I walked past the owl tree and glanced up at the nest cavity, as I always do, winter, summer, nesting season and beyond, and this is what I saw:


Can't see anything? Allow me to zoom in (which I did later in the day with a better camera):



Mom is on the nest!  Inside there are definitely eggs, or, more likely, given that it is already mid-March, owlets.

See? All my fretting paid off. Last year's owlets branched on March 27 and March 29. That might be early for this year, considering how cold the winter was. But you can bet I'll be bringing the good camera with me on the morning walks from now on.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hoping for owlets, but worried

This morning's owl.

It's been more than a week since I have seen any activity at the owl nest. It was Saturday night, March 1, when an owl flew out of the nest around 6 in the evening just as Doug and I were approaching on the evening dog walk. The next night, I heard hooting coming from a stand of pines nearby, but I couldn't find either owl. And that's been how it's gone it ever since--occasional hooting, occasional sightings of owls in trees, but nothing at all at the nest.

Up until a week ago, I could persuade myself that I could see movement inside the cavity where the nest supposedly is. A couple of times I saw a small feather, waving from a shard of wood at the entrance, pulled from an owl, most likely, as it was coming or going.

But now I am beginning to worry. Did the pair produce a clutch of eggs? Did the eggs hatch? Are the owlets viable, and growing? Will they be branching soon? Or is the nest abandoned and empty, the owlets dead, the eggs stolen by raccoons?

There is probably no good reason for my fretting, other than the fact that I am a natural-born fretter. But my nervousness has been exacerbated by a series of e-mails from a photographer who had staked out the nest last year and got glorious, beautiful shots of the branched owlets and the parents.  (He also has wonderful photos from elsewhere around the Cities--great shots of four pileated babies, poking their heads out of the nests, screaming for food; other owls; other birds.)

He emailed me this week and said he had not seen any activity at the nest for more than a week, and he was concerned. Previously, he said, he had been able to see ear tufts when he aimed his spotting scope at the nest cavity, but lately he's seen nothing.

The nest in the cavity of the silver maple, with one of last year's owlets
poking his head out the day before he branched. The second owlet
had already branched and was hiding behind the jagged back of the nest.

The nest is in the cavity of a broken-off branch of a silver maple tree, probably 20 feet up from the ground. It angles sharply down, and unless something has its head poking out of the hole it's not possible to see what, if anything, is inside. Every day, I stare up from the walking path, but all I see is darkness and, as I mentioned, the occasional waving feather.

The photographer's e-mails so worried me that I consulted with neighbors who are also besotted with the owls. One woman said she saw an owl fly to the nest tree on Wednesday but not actually go inside the nest. She, too, has heard the hooting at night. But nobody has seen any activity coming or going from the actual nest.

So now I am on fretful, worried owl watch. Last night, the dogs and I heard hooting from the pines by the frog pond, just a few yards west of the nesting tree. We wandered over there and found dozens of owl pellets in the snow, but couldn't spot the owl. As we were walking away, we heard response hooting coming from a stand of pines just east of the nest; if you were to draw a straight line between the two stands of pines, the nesting tree would be in the middle. Surely the owls wouldn't be staying so close if there weren't owlets?

But who knows? Great-horned owls are territorial, and this is their territory.

This morning we walked past the nest again, and I stood on the path and stared up at the dark cavity. Nothing. No motion, no feathers, no mom flying in with a rabbit or a rat.  Is anybody in there? I asked aloud. Last year's owlets branched at the very end of March, so I have two or three or even four weeks to wait to get my answer.

As we continued along the path toward home, I looked up and saw an adult owl in one of the pines right in front of me.  Is there anyone in the nest? I asked.

That owl knows. He knows for sure. But he's not saying.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

After the storm


And now everything is glittering white and frozen hard again. We had two lovely melty days--on Tuesday the temperature was near 50 degrees, and the sun was shining, and water was running down the street, snowbanks were collapsing, the puddle at the corner where I cross to go to work was so wide and so deep that I had to trot down to the other end of the block and cross there. A person could drown in a puddle that size, or just float away.

Two days, Tuesday and Wednesday. That's all we got. It is not unusual for early spring to do this to us, tease us, laugh at us, come and go, but this year it more than teased us. It flirted with us and then it slapped us across the face, pushed us down the stairs.  How dare we! On Thursday morning, the day after the melt, a few hours before the big storm, I took the dogs to the park. It was still mild, about 30 degrees, and while the path was icy underfoot, we walked well and long, figuring this would be the last good walk for a while. A storm was moving in that afternoon, and it was predicted to be a big one.

Down by the lake, as we crossed the parking lot to head up to the pedestrian bridge that spans busy Lexington Avenue, I saw movement on the hill above the bridge: a red fox. This was the first time I'd seen a fox since the first big snowfall in mid-November; while I've seen their tracks all over the place, the foxes themselves have been more coy.

This one was not coy. He saw us, and he stopped and watched.  Of course I wanted a picture, I always want a picture, so I hustled Riley and Rosie across the parking lot and over to the path that leads up the hill.


At some point the dogs caught sight of the fox, and they acted like the goofballs they are in a crisis: Riley started lunging and barking, straining at the leash, and Rosie launched herself right at Riley, since the fox was too far away for her to attack, and I had to try to pull them apart and calm them down all while dragging them straight toward the fox.

The fox trotted back and forth on its hill, waiting for us. He seemed bemused by our Keystone Kops approach. He paused between two trees at the top of the snowy hill. He backed up so that I could see only his ears and eyes poking up over the curve of the snow. He came forward again and posed. I fumbled with the camera, the dogs leaped and thrashed, I took an extremely crooked picture with some filter or another inadvertently activated, and then he trotted off. Perhaps he sighed. Perhaps he rolled his eyes.

We are so inept, the dogs and I, at the sight of unexpected wildlife. We have grown used to having this park mostly to ourselves this frigid winter, sharing it with the occasional jogger, now and then another intrepid dog-walker, an owl safely high enough in a tree that the dogs don't care. It has been too cold and snowy for ducks or geese; the lake is given over to ice fishermen sitting on stools, jigging their lines. We haven't even seen a coyote trotting out to the fishing hole to look for guts.

So the sight of this fox sent us all into our separate frenzies--Riley with the fox, Rosie with Riley, me with the camera, fumbling and bumbling with excitement.

The sky began to clear as we headed for home. Later in the day the clouds would move back in, and it would begin to rain, putting down a thick layer of ice before it turned to all snow for the next seventeen hours. When the storm passed on Friday midmorning, we would have a foot of new snow, trees bent from the weight of the ice, the yard so deep that if she thought of it Rosie could just step over the top of the fence and be gone, back to the park, back to the fox, searching for its den.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A time of transition

Tuesday morning after the snowstorm.

This has been a long, deep, old-fashioned winter. Lots of snow. Bitter cold. I have to confess that I haven't much minded it; the previous few winters all began with rain, which then froze, making walking conditions icy and impossible for months on end. The twice-daily dog walk was frustrating and dangerous.  I wore little grippies on my boots and minced along in slow motion and still fell. The dogs and I grew fat from lack of exercise.

This year it's been cold, but even when it's six below zero, or nine below zero, I bundle up and walk fast and far under bright sunny skies, under clear starry skies. The sidewalks are snowy, but not slick. As long as I can move, I don't mind the cold.

On Monday we had another snowstorm; there have been lots of Monday morning right at commute time blizzards this year, and Monday saw another six inches of snow right at rush hour. But yesterday--oh gorgeous, glorious yesterday! I had to go out at noon to give a little talk to the Minnesota Memoirists, and when the talk was over I headed back to work under bright blue skies, and nearly fifty degrees. Oh, my, it was gorgeous. The puddle at the corner by my parking lot was so wide and deep--and penned in by high walls of snow--that I couldn't cross there; I had to go down the street to the other corner.

Everything was dripping and splashing, the snow was piled high and blindingly white, the sun was powerful, the sky a vivid deep blue. I took off my gloves, opened my coat, laughed out loud.

Yesterday's sunrise: clear skies, unbroken snow, and not a soul around.

It froze overnight, though, and I fear that this morning's walk will be a mincing, slow, short one, me being careful not to fall, jerking the dogs' leashes in frustration when they try to bolt after a squirrel, afraid they'll pull me over.

And tomorrow: another blizzard. Here we go, lurching like a drunk toward spring.

This will be the next few weeks, I fear, if not the next two months. Warm and melty, cold and freezy, icy, more snow. I don't mind having a real honest to gosh winter as long as it means a real honest to gosh spring follows. I'm starting to look forward to daffodils and tulips, mud and the smell of new-mown grass. Here's hoping I can manage to stay upright until then.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Looking toward June


Saturday morning, 7 a.m., zero degrees outside, Rosie chewing on an elk antler, Riley chewing on a paw, Doug reading the newspaper, and me trying hard to generate some anxiety about June. On the table by my side are the twelve books that I must read between now and then--there are also several long essays and two screenplays that I need to find on the Web--but since I have a full six weeks more for reading than I did before the January residency, I am not feeling any particular sense of urgency.

Today I should get back my instructor's comments on my Feb. 1 manuscript, which I'll be interested to see, but my brain is deeply in the March 1 manuscript at this point, and I've already started tinkering with the piece I hope to submit in April.

I'm taking Riley to the vet today for his annual checkup; we'll walk over to the clinic, about a mile away, at 10 a.m. when it's supposed to be about ten degrees. He's 12 1/2 now but happy and healthy--well, as happy as neurotic Riley can be, denning up a room away in the evenings, keeping us under surveillance, and going up to bed at 8:15 p.m. every night, like clockwork. He hops onto the bed and curls up in the southwest corner of the mattress and is snoring quietly when I go up some time later. (Rosie stays downstairs with me, sprawled on the couch, her head on my knee, her big brown eyes opening every time I shift my position, just in case it means I'm suddenly going to play.)

As you can see, I'm having trouble keeping on task. A dozen books to read between now and June but it's hard to take this very seriously; we have four feet of snow on the ground and June feels like a lifetime away. No, I'm not losing my enthusiasm for the MFA. I'm just more interested in the writing part right now. And I'm a lifelong journalist, motivated by deadlines. A June deadline to a newspaper person is no deadline at all.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

And now, back to the MFA


We got our reading list this morning for the June residency. Things should be much less hectic this time around---we have three and a half months to do the readings, as opposed to a mere two months for the first residency.

This time I count twelve books plus a screenplay and some assorted essays, but I might be miscounting; I only got the list about fifteen minutes ago.

I am facing some of the frustrations I faced last time: I know I own some of these books, but I'll be damned if I can put my hands on them.  Thomas Lynch's "The Undertaking"? I've read that, and at one time I owned two copies, but I can find neither one.  "The Great Gatsby"? I re-read that a few years back and I can picture the blue cover, the sad eyes, the festive yellow streak at the bottom. But, again, where is it? This house has thousands of books, and while they are more or less in order, it seems that the ones I need to find are always less in order than more.

I did find "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (and man do these Queens professors love Joan Didion; this will be the third collection assigned), so that's something.  I'll show you all of the titles when I get them.

This morning I turned in my critiques to the other students in my workshop; we all had to turn in manuscripts last Saturday and have until the end of today to respond. Next weekend the instructor responds, and then it all repeats itself in March. And April. And May. And June--but in June we will be back in Charlotte.

I am enjoying this, the rhythm of it, writing every morning over breakfast, either my own work or critiques of others. For February's deadline, I turned in one new piece and a couple of older ones that I reworked. For March, I have one new piece and one old one that I'm rewriting. It's fun; it makes me work. Write an hour every day, Stitt told us, and while I am writing every day it is not always an hour. And, frankly, these nine-below-zero mornings have helped, cutting short the dogwalk and giving me more time before I leave for work. When the weather warms and the walks grow long again, I will have to figure out a new rhythm.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The owls' last hurrah

At sundown, all was quiet in the park
So last week's performance of owl love might have been the pair's last hurrah. Now it is February, and I'm thinking the courtship and fooling around is over and it's time to brood. Not brood as in the dark-eyed scorned lover, but brood as in sitting on eggs.  It's cold here, still getting down below zero at night, and wherever the female owl is I figure she isn't straying far from the nest because she won't want those eggs to freeze.

On the weekend, I walked over to the park alone at dusk and wandered back and forth between the pines where the owls have been hanging out and the silver maple where last year's nest was. The sky darkened from pale pink and blue to navy blue, the shadows faded as the light drained away, and everything was quiet but for the sound of my boots squeaking on the hard-packed snow. No owls. Nothing at all, just me, growing colder and colder in the six degrees below zero evening.

I left the tree and headed up the path toward the Japanese Garden, where I had seen the owl hooting behind the tall fence a week before, but again, all was quiet. And then I remembered something one of the gardeners had told me last summer. She said she had seen the whole owl family one night "hunting off the top of the dome." I have been unable to look at the illuminated glass dome of the Como Conservatory since then without picturing four owls perched on the very top but of course that is not something I have ever seen.  So I walked a few feet down the path toward the Conservatory, and right away I saw the owl.

Hunting off the Conservatory dome.

He wasn't on top of the dome, of course--how would he see anything from up there?--but he was perched on the ridge that runs around the bottom of the glass dome. He turned his head, he craned his neck, he was clearly hunting. I didn't want to get too close because my mantra always is, don't disturb the owls. I took a picture, but I was far away and so it's blurry, and he actually looks more like a cat than an owl. But then I saw him fly...


...to the adjoining greenhouse roof. Cats don't fly. Not in my life, anyway.

And so I left him there. If the female is brooded up somewhere, this is probably the male, hunting for something for himself to eat, and something for her. If all goes well, the female will produce somewhere between two and four eggs, spaced several days apart, and the eggs will hatch in early March. A few weeks later, the owlets will emerge from the nest to hang out on a branch. And the whole wonderful cycle begins again.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Owl lust

Great-horned owl in Como Park on a nine-degrees-below-zero night.
One snowy January night some years ago I was cruising home from work when I saw lights--little pinpricks of brightness scattered across an empty field of Como Park. The lights were bobbing, though not in sync with each other, and it took me a few seconds to realize that they were attached to human beings. What I was seeing were the headlamps of dozens and dozens of people who were spaced just a few feet apart, hacking at the snow with hoes and shovels and rakes. In the dark, in the cold, in the night. I drove the rest of the way home feeling rather enchanted: What a strange and bizarre ritual this was, whatever it was!

This was my introduction to the St. Paul Winter Carnival Medallion Hunt. Every year in January, the carnival folk hide a medallion--larger than a silver dollar, worth $10,000--somewhere in one of the public spaces of St. Paul. It's usually packed inside of something--a Band-Aid box; a scrap of blue jean;  and, once, pressed into the hole of a doughnut. And then they run oblique clues in the local newspaper, daily riddles, like in a scavenger hunt. That year, the clues led medallion hunters to Como.

This year, the clues led to Como again. Over the weekend, as the hunt progressed, I took a walk past the trees where I see owls and found, instead, four people diligently shoveling away the snow, right down to the ground. "Why are you hunting here?" I asked. The clues had hinted at the park's monuments and structures, and this was far from any of those. And me being the fretful type, I worried that all this commotion would disturb the owls, who were about ready to nest.

One of the women stopped her work and leaned on her shovel. "I heard an owl hooting," she said. "I took it as a sign that the medallion was here." And then she went back to work. I gnashed my teeth.

The medallion was found a couple of days later (nowhere near that spot), and so two nights ago I decided to walk back to the owl tree to see if the big birds were still there, or had been spooked off. It was cold, nine degrees below zero, but no wind, and the dogs did not complain when I lashed their little red jackets around their torsos. (They never complain, of course, but sometimes they make it clear that they would prefer to stay indoors.)

It was a beautiful walk, the sun setting, the darkening sky turning navy blue as we crossed the pedestrian bridge. I saw the shape right away, a big lump high in the bare branches of a slender tree just to the left of the path. It was hooting.

I stopped to take a quick cell phone picture, just because I can never restrain myself, and as I did, I heard another hoot, from behind me.
And its mate, nearby.
The mate! I was thrilled. They were here, they were safe, the medallion nonsense had not disturbed them at all. I hurried the dogs along the path, the owls hooting back and forth as we walked. But I had not gone more than 20 feet up the path when I heard EEEEEEEEE a brief, high-pitched shriek. I wheeled around: both owls were gone.

That sound was the sound they make when mating. I did not see the owls having sex, and is it weird of me that I am sorry I missed it? But I heard them, and it made me happy. It is almost February, nesting time. Bring on the eggs. Bring on the owlets. Bring on spring!


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hunting for owls

One of the park's great-horned owls. I took this photo last summer.
Mid-December is when great-horned owls start hooting. In the evenings, on the dog walk, I sometimes heard them. I rarely saw them. Every night was a puzzle to try to track them down. One night shortly before Christmas I heard hooting down by the lake; I was alone with my older dog, Riley, and I could not for the life of me figure out where the sound was coming from. I stood on the path in the dark and listened hard: The call was faint, but it seemed to be coming from the middle of the frozen lake.

Of course, it was not coming from the lake; sometimes that wide flat expanse of open space plays games with sound. I walked back the way I had come; the hooting grew faint. Walked ahead, and it grew louder and then, the farther I walked, fainter.

After a while Riley got tired of playing this game and refused to move. It was below zero, he had not had his dinner, he is old. We went home, and the next night I went back down to the lake at the same time but all was quiet.

That was the night when a neighbor reported hearing hooting in the trees by her house; it was so loud that she could hear the sound over the noise of her television set. She lives in a different part of the park, not by the lake, so the next night the dogs and I trolled the wooded area near her house but heard nothing.

Throughout December, this was the game the owl and I played, and while the owl had no idea it was involved, it was always one step ahead of me. I walked quietly, took my hat off, listened: Owl in the pines by the conservatory. Owl on a branch behind the swimming pool. Owl back in the pines by the neighbor's house. Sometimes I heard him, three times I saw him, sometimes I got reports after the fact from various neighbors who were on their own owl patrols. But most nights, no owl at all.

Gaa! It was driving me crazy.

It is in mid-December when the male great-horned owl begins to reclaim his territory, so it was not surprising that he was somewhere new every night. But now it is mid-January, and the hooting has changed. Now he has decided where to nest, and he is calling in a mate.

On Monday evening, my first full day back from Queens, I walked the dogs in the park, glanced up at a tree, and there sat the owl, as solemn and still as a gargoyle on a building. We kept walking, briskly, so as not to disturb him, but at the top of the path I turned and looked in time to see him fly from one tree to another. He didn't go far. I watched for a while and then headed for home, stopping under a streetlight to text my husband: ''BEST DOG WALK EVER. OWL!!" And then I heard hooting, and I looked up. This was different; this was two-tone hooting. This was two owls doing call and response. The deeper, closer hoot of the male, and the response of the female just a little way off. I plunged into deep snow in my hurry to get back to the path, dragging the reluctant dogs behind me, .

A neighbor stood at the bottom of the path, and I stood at the top, and we both listened. Hoo hoo hoo hoooooooo! Called the male. Hoo hoo hoo hooooooooo! came the female response. It is a thrilling sound, tremulous and haunting; I could feel it in my chest. The male flew from tree to tree, called, flew back. There was something so joyous in his flying, his calling, her answer, that I felt joyous too; this is the courtship phase, the dance, the play, before the serious drudgery of egg-sitting and owlet-raising begins. Come to my bachelor pad, he is cooing. Come see my etchings! We'll have fun!

Rosie began whimpering, and Riley turned and stared fiercely in the direction of home: they wanted their damn dinner. And I did not want to disturb the owls. So we headed back, the hooting growing fainter and fainter behind us. The next day, I emailed my neighbor: How long had she stayed? What more had she seen?

She wrote back: "I was there for another 15 minutes or so. The female was puffing up her tail feathers so she looked like a chicken in silhouette. The sounds the male was making before he turned it into a hoot was pretty cool too. The whole sighting was magical."

That vision stayed with me the whole next day while I headed back to work in a snowstorm. In the evening, I got off the bus a few blocks early and trudged the snowy paths of the park toward the trees. I wanted to see the chicken-puffing! I wanted to hear the call and response!

As I crested the hill, I heard that magical hooting.The moon was full, but all I could see against the night sky was tree branches, and a smudge that might have been a cluster of leaves, might have been a squirrel nest, but this smudge was making some noise. There was no response, and after a few more calls the male fell silent. I waited, quiet, listening, but after awhile the smudge leaped off the branch, dive-bombed toward the snow, swooped up again and disappeared.

I have been back twice since then--later that night, and again this morning, but the trees are quiet, I cannot find the owl. They might be there, in the top of the pines, looking down at me and thinking, Gad, her again. Or I might be wrong about where I think the nest is and they might have moved on. But Monday night's courtship will stay with me, those owls swooping and flying and calling and hooting above the new snow, under a round, full moon.



Monday, January 13, 2014

Home

Back in my park.

In the airport yesterday, I picked up a memoir called"Brain on Fire" by a New York Post reporter named Susannah Cahalan. It's about a month in her life when her brain was attacked by some kind of pathogen that caused seizures, paranoia, hallucinations, violence, catatonia. Doctors had no idea what was wrong with her; she got sicker and sicker; tests came back negative for everything from lupus to Lyme disease. It was assumed she was having a full mental breakdown, until one doctor finally figured it out and saved her life.

The book was fascinating (I finished it last night) and what impressed me the most was her author's note at the beginning, which lays out how she knows what she knows. She has only the vaguest, haziest memories of being ill--she remembers walking to the coffee stand in the hospital to buy a cappuccino and being struck with a seizure, and then almost nothing else for the next 27 days.

So how did she tell the story? She reported it out. She interviewed doctors, nurses, her parents, her boyfriend; she read all of her medical records, as well as journal articles and reports on other cases of the same disease; she watched videos the hospital had made of her during her illness; she read her father's journal, and the one she had tried to write during that time (those entries are heartbreaking, like the writing of a very young child).

You get the idea. She did not invent scenes. She did not make anything up. She told the story of what happened to her, and, consequently, it is a very powerful book. The reader trusts the writer. This is both "emotional truth" and "literal truth," the best kind of memoir, in my estimation. I can't find her author's note online but you should look it up. It's impressive.

So now I am home. I have kissed my husband, snuggled with my dogs (Riley, it should be noted, leaped off the back porch, jumped right past five steps, in order to race across the yard and jump into my arms. Pretty good for a 12-year-old introverted old dog), taken a refreshing long walk in 35-degree warmth; finally had a good night's sleep.

Next up: I must write. I must turn in 25 pages on the first day of every month between now and May. I will turn those pages in to my instructor, Peter Stitt, and also to the three other people in my workshop, who will also send their 25 pages to me.  By the second week of the month, I will send them all my critiques of the other manuscripts. And the next month we will do that again.

Some time in February, I'll get a reading list for the second residency, so the months between February and the end of May will, I hope, fall into a lovely pattern of writing, critiquing and reading. (And somewhere in there will be my job, and the rest of my life.) The first week of June, I'll go back to Queens, and take all of you with me, for my second residency.

This will be the plan for the next two years.

I will start writing today, but I have to tell you that I can feel the pressure: Whenever I go to a writing workshop or have a session with a writing coach or otherwise talk at length about writing, I find that I have to push through writer's block when it's all over. I've learned a lot; there are pitfalls I've been made aware of (passive voice! summary! too many adverbs! not enough balance! too much compression! no present tense! no second tense! and on and on), and so I sit down at the computer and start to write and my little brain says, "No! That's summary!" and I start backspacing-deleting.

So today's the day when I get over that. I must just write, and edit myself later.  I have one day, today, before I go back to the newsroom. I won't get those 25 pages written today. But I am hoping for one or two.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Day Seven.

In front of the library

Awoke to pounding, lashing rain, and thunder, and it rained all day. I had just one seminar, a session on nonfiction reviewing, and I got there way early by accident. (Every other day, seminars began at 10:15, but yesterday's began at 10:30.) So there I was, sitting in the front row, looking obedient and good for a long time.

The instructor was James McKean, and I liked him a lot. He is a poet and essayist (and a former basketball player), and he began by showing us excerpts from snarky reviews--power point slide after slide of Harold Bloom ripping on JK Rowling, William Faulkner sneering at Ernest Hemingway, Hemingway belittling Faulkner, John Irving ripping Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal calling Truman Capote a "full-fledged housewife from Kansas."

The point of all this was that it's not good to do this--personal attacks, snarkiness, friends (or enemies) reviewing friends (or enemies)--but because everyone in the class enjoyed it so much and we spent so much time on these quotes, McKean delivered sort of the opposite message.

The texts we discussed: John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Pulphead," and Gretel Ehrlich's "The Solace of Empty Spaces." McKean took us through the reviewing thought process in a logical way: What is the book about? What is the writer's message? How does he/she deliver that message? What form does he/she use? How clear is the message? Etc etc.  He gave us Robert Pinsky's reviewing rules, and John Updike's Six Rules for Constructive Criticism.


As McKean spoke, the rain picked up, rattling the windows, and the wind cried oooooooooooo, and inside the classroom felt both cozy and dangerous: Which leads me into the next topic.

McKean asked us to talk about the definition of creative nonfiction, and I found myself sort of a lone wolf in the room when I said that creative nonfiction is nonfiction that employs the elements of fiction: plot, characters, setting, tone, etc., with the difference being that the writer is not allowed to make anything up.

McKean didn't precisely go along with that, and he talked about creating scenes that serve the piece. The example he used was an essay he wrote about his aunt, who had been a swimmer in the 1936 Olympics (and I must find this essay). He reported the piece--talked to the aunt, watched a film of the race with her, read books and newspaper articles--but when it came time to write it, he invented some scenes, including a scene of her in the locker room right after she didn't make the 1932 Olympics.

Students jumped into the conversation, and they all seemed to agree that memoir was special, memoir allows the writer to create scenes and dialogue, that all of this is perfectly fine as long as it serves something called "the emotional truth." One student said there's Truth, and then there's truth, and there's a difference between the two, but he did not go on to explain the difference, maybe because other people were nodding knowingly.

Someone else pointed out that nobody really knows what truth is, and that if you ask ten people about what happened in a particular incident, they will all have different memories.

And here I must move into all caps, because I believe this so strongly; YES, THAT IS TRUE, THEY WILL NOT AGREE ON DETAILS. BUT THERE STILL WAS A PARTICULAR INCIDENT THAT THEY ARE ALL TRYING TO RECALL.

I understand that memory is faulty, and I even understand the need of some memoirists to paint in colors memories that are blurry. But to make up entire scenes out of whole cloth is something else indeed, and I would love a larger discussion on this. I want people to talk to me about what, exactly, they mean by "emotional truth." All of this benign permission to invent and still call it nonfiction troubles me, and I would like a larger discussion.

I did raise my hand, but McKean either didn't see me or didn't want to have that discussion at that particular time (which I understand--the class was on reviewing, not on truth and veracity in memoir writing), but I left the seminar deeply frustrated and rather cranky. It is an important discussion to have, and not just once, but every time a nonfiction writer is moved to invent.

I am assuming we will have this discussion at some time during my two years here.

After that seminar, torpor set in. It was still raining, though not as violently, just pattering on my head and pinging off the red brick sidewalks. After lunch, I had a long discussion with another student about our theses, and then I went to the library to work. But ... I didn't get much done. The campus was very quiet, the rain pattered down, I was tired, sleepy and cranky.

Back at the hotel, I took a walk to the shopping mall to look for a bookstore; I had mailed the Ozeki off to my friend Erik and now I have nothing new to read. In that gigantic, gigantic mall, there is not a single bookstore. The complex is 1.6 million square feet, more than 150 stores. Not a single bookstore, not even a store that also carries books, sort of as an afterthought. NO BOOKS.

The rain had stopped, the sky began to clear, the moon came out. But it was too late, too dark, to walk.

And now it is Sunday morning, and I am drinking my last cup of coffee. The cab will be here in an hour. I will be back here in June, though for that residency I will live in the dorms, not a hotel. Between now and then I must write, write, write.


Goodbye for now, Queens and Charlotte, and goodbye to my hawk, still there in the rain.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Day Six.

The campus in the rain.

The little $5 umbrella I bought at Walgreens on my first day here has gotten a lot of use. Big old thunderstorm outside, and I wish I could push the window up and hear and smell the rain.

Rained yesterday, too, and my feet felt damp and chilly all day.  We had back-to-back seminars in the morning, a 9 a.m. lecture on writing for stage and screen, followed by a 10:30 discussion of sense of place in nonfiction narrative. Both seminars were taught by women who really knew their stuff and really knew how to explain it; in stage and screen we discussed Beckett's "Play" and Jordan's "The Crying Game," and in the sense of place class we discussed, at length, Ian Frazier's "Great Plains" and Joan Didion's "Where I Was From," her essays about coming to terms with a changing California.

We had a little time at the end, though not much, to talk about Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." Almost every class, two hours isn't enough. And I know that others feel the same way, because when the lecture is particularly good, at the end the class applauds.  That has happened nearly every time.

In the afternoon, more workshopping, though this time I was not on the hot seat. I kind of missed it. 

Lunchroom window.
And in between, rain rain rain, dashing under my umbrella to the cafeteria, where I have been smuggling out a banana every day for my breakfast; to the library, to make printouts; to other buildings, just because I get restless.

Last night I finished "A Tale for the Time Being," and I will take it to the copy center this afternoon and mail it to my friend Erik. "Stay with it," I'll tell him. "It gets dark, but that is not its point."

I will have plenty of time to visit the copy center--and the library, and the lunchroom--because my only obligation today is the morning seminar, on reviewing nonfiction. Time for me to see how much I really know about what I do for a living! And then after that--nothing. There was time set aside for one-on-one discussions with our workshop leader, but we did that yesterday. We each talked to him for about 20 minutes and he pushed us to think about what we want to spend the semester working on, what we plan to write, what will our thesis be?  Yikes. I sort of thought I'd muddle around for a semester or two and then figure it out, but he pushed us to focus.

He liked my idea, unformed and tentative, and sketched out on the board how I might think about mapping it out, and even though I wasn't entirely sure it would work for what I think I might want to do, I was glad to see that at least one of us was focused and enthusiastic.

This rainy afternoon, after my seminar, after mailing the book to Erik, I will go to the library and work.



Friday, January 10, 2014

Day Five.

Rocking chairs outside the cafeteria

My energy is starting to flag. The days can't all be perfect, can they? If that's all I wrote about, you would start doubting the veracity of this report. Yesterday was difficult, though it did have wonderful moments.

I woke up at 2:30 a.m. with a headache. Did not get back to sleep. Did not get rid of the headache. (I have one again this morning--I think it's these hotel pillows.) The morning seminar was one I had been dreading: Poetry. It's not that I don't like poetry; I do. But I'm a literal-minded facts-is-facts journalist, and more complex poetry often baffles me.

We read "Incarnadine," by Mary Szybist (which just won the National Book Award) and "Desire," by Frank Bidart, and without any kind of religious background (I am embarrassed to say I didn't know what the annunciation was), I had no idea how to read the Szybist. Not that I knew how to read "Desire," either. I figured, this will be two hours of talk right over my head.

But it wasn't! Robert Polito led the seminar, and he was thoughtful, precise, accessible, took us poem by poem (not all poems, and not in order, but as they related to each other) and after the first hour I was able to offer a tentative I-might-be-off-base interpretation of something and he said I was RIGHT and YES and went on to talk about it in great length and I just felt overwhelmed at my own brilliance. Kidding about that. I felt overwhelmed that in one hour he was able to show me so much about how to read this wonderful book.

And then he did it again, in the second hour, with the second book. (Did you know that every line in "Desire" is from somewhere else? Every line! He said it's like putting together a book using tweezers.)

So that was a wonderful thing, to be able to see inside poetry in a way that I never have before and frankly probably never will again, unless Robert Polito is at my side guiding me, and he's a busy man so that probably will not happen.

Anyway, remember that name, my new hero, Robert Polito.

Spotted on my walk. And what is that tree-band for?

After that I took a walk, finally, a real walk. I stashed my heavy book bag in the MFA office and set off straight up the road past the university. A busy road, not a beautiful walk, but I passed a lovely little brick public library, and saw a hawk in a tree in a yard, and a little bricked way station with a bench and a water fountain and a dog-water-dish, not a bus stop, I don't think, just a little place to sit down. A lot of the big trees have big sticky bands around the trunks, to catch seeds? To stop bugs? I do not know. And in the middle of the boulevard that runs down the middle of the busy street is a statue of a man who looks like he's running or hawking newspapers or... I could not get over there to look, because of the traffic, but I will try today if this rain ever lets up. The statue is a sparkling gold.

And then back to campus, where I sat on a bench under the tree where the hawk was (you knew I had to mention the hawk) and worked on critiques until it was time for me to be critiqued. Which did not go particularly well. That's probably all I should say about that, but know that my piece SUCKED and it needs WORK and there's too much SUMMARY and not enough SCENE and the CHRONOLOGY was CONFUSING. OK, nobody used the word "sucked." But everything else.

I got a ride back to the hotel with one of my podmates (yes, we are now sci-fi characters) and then took another walk. My energy was beginning to flag, I felt depressed about how terrible my manuscript was, and I knew that when I woke up today it was going to be raining. Which it is. Which means no walk.

But then another student texted me commisseration and encouragement, and I talked to Doug, who said it would be a very bad thing if I just coasted through this program with nothing but praise, and by the time I went to sleep I felt much better.

So now I think I should revise my opening paragraph to this post to say that yesterday was a wonderful day with difficult moments.

This morning: back-to-back seminars. (Screenwriting, followed by the use of place in nonfiction.) Must get going.



Thursday, January 9, 2014

Day (you guessed it) Four

Sykes, where most of my workshops and seminars are held.

Day Four, really? It feels like Week Four. It feels like Year Four. I should be graduating by now! These days are interesting and invigorating but they are also very long, and sometimes I have to pause to remember what day of the week it is, or whether something I'm about to mention happened that morning, or a day ago. This is only Day Four of my first week of my first residency, and I am an ant at the bottom of a very tall mountain, looking up up up.

What, you think I'm discouraged? I'm not discouraged. But I am getting tired, and my brain is starting to feel full, and I would love a long walk (with dog) and a nap. And it's hard to think of this as a two-plus-years commitment; I keep thinking that on Sunday I will go home and life will get back to normal. But that is only partly true. On Sunday I will go home and life will get very busy.

The street I walked along has a
towering canopy of trees. Ignore the
power lines, also towering.
Last night, since I'm sure you're all wondering, I did get all sociable, and I did go to the dinner, and I ate four times more than any human being should eat: mashed potatoes AND green beans AND pulled pork AND pumpkin pie.... But it was worth it, because people are so great, and one student, now a friend, texted me and said she'd save me a seat, and I got to finally meet another student who has been part of our little new-student texting circle but since he's in fiction I hadn't yet met him face-to-face. And he was great! And, holy moly, he and his wife have triplets! And then Rebecca McClanahan sat down at our table, and even though I couldn't hear a word she said it was like we were suddenly anointed.

The morning session was on the narrator in nonfiction (texts: "Neil Young on a Good Day," a New York Times magazine profile by Steve Erickson; "The White Album," by Joan Didion; and "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," by Anne Fadiman), and we only had two hours and that's a lot of material to cover, but I think we did a good job. The Fadiman book is one I'd read years ago, and I heard her speak at the Nieman Conference at Harvard shortly after it came out, but I had not looked at the book before in terms of where she is, and when she appears, and why, and that was interesting.

Our instructor pointed out that the last line of each chapter leads directly to the title of the next chapter, which is almost always a refutation; check it out; it's cool.

In the afternoon, more workshopping. In between, a walk--too short, still chilly (there were icy patches on the sidewalk, folks!), and my book bag was heavy on my shoulder, but at least I got out in the sunshine and moved around a little. Especially, you know, considering all that pulled pork to come.

Our 5:15 shuttle bus never came; a big group of us huddled by the clock tower for nearly half an hour, and then some proactive students called a cab, and I, being nearly as proactive, jumped in with them (yes, yes, it was OK) and so did two other women, but everyone else had to stand there and wait and apparently the bus finally showed up at 6 and by then, surely, everyone was frozen.

The good news: the hawk was back. The bad news: "A Tale for the Time Being" is turning very, very dark.

This afternoon, in workshop, I am back on the hot seat. Stay tuned.

Hawk on Wednesday.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Day Three


This campus is so pretty and compact--and so quiet--that it feels almost fake, like a movie set. I clip across the brick paths, past the fountain, down a few steps, and I pass about six people on my trek. The white rocking chairs lined up in front of the comma-shaped cafeteria building are empty, as are the little wrought-iron chairs outside. (Of course, that could be because of the cold.) Where is everyone? Maybe classes aren't yet in session; maybe they begin next week, right after we are gone, but for now the campus is oddly serene.

At noon the tables in the lunchroom are not full, and each day I choose the one in the far far corner, where there is a little patch of sunlight, and I haul out Ruth Ozeki's "A Tale for the Time Being," and I read a few more pages. It's my little fiction treat during this intensive week of nonfiction, and I am going to be sad when I am done. (Also: What will I read? The bookstore seems to carry sweatshirts and coffee mugs rather than books.) It seems funny to be in a writing program and worrying about having nothing to read.

Today by noon the temperature will finally rise above freezing and I will take a walk. I'm going a little nuts, not getting any exercise other than dashing to and from the Clock Tower to catch the shuttle bus.

This was our text
So. Yesterday. A good day. Our morning session was two hours of discussion of many ways the writer can push at the form in memoir. We touched on the prickly issue of blending fact with fiction, and when is remembered dialogue OK and is it ever all right to make things up? We didn't discuss this as deeply as I would have liked, but there was a lot of other ground to cover and anyway I already know what I think about all that (and most of you know what I think, too: If you make it up, it's fiction). Some of the students seemed to have less trouble with it than I did, and at first it was hard to understand the instructor's point of view (Peter Stitt, again), because he was quite scornful of someone who had taken John Berendt to task for making up dialogue in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." But "Midnight" wasn't memoir, it was supposedly a book of reportage, so I was confused by this argument. We talked about it a little, but by then we'd moved on to a Stuart Dybek essay about his father, so I asked, If Dybek was accurate about everything in this essay except the details of the story--that is, if it accurately portrayed how he felt as a child, and how he felt toward his father, etc.--would you think that was OK?

And Stitt looked surprised and said, No, I'd think it was bullshit.

So at least we're clear.

After that, over the noon hour, one of those frustrating typical college experiences of trying to print stuff out at the library, the computer not accepting my password, me trotting down the brick paths to the IT building (in a basement, of course), nobody there, a sign on the door saying HOURS ARE 8 A.M. TO 5 P.M. and here it was, 12:30 p.m. and everything locked up tight, then trotting off to the copy center, where there was, again, an open counter, no one there, finally someone came and he did indeed print out my stuff but he couldn't accept my Queens card, which is loaded with $20 for copying, so I had to pay cash (it was 56 cents)... The kind of irritations that happen at campuses everywhere, always.  And at first he wasn't going to charge me because he thought I was faculty.  I guess I can no longer pass as a student.

I took a little walk in the cold sunshine and happened across this statue, called "Miss Anne and Dan," by an artist named Elsie Shaw. But I think it could be called "Laurie and Rosie," don't you?

"Miss Anne and Dan: Anne Beatty McKenna," by Elsie Shaw,
Class of 1948.
In the afternoon, three hours of workshopping, and I loved the instructor, Rebecca McClanahan, so much (though I have loved all of them so far)--super-smart, and intense, and exuberant; she listened respectfully while we critiqued each other, and then, when we were done, she just climbed into the pieces being discussed, and found ways to use them to talk about all kinds of things--structure, and compression, and scene ("consecutive action in continuous time"), and balance. Three hours of this, and I think nobody got tired. Of course, I wasn't on the hot seat--my piece had been critiqued the day before, so I could listen intently without any emotional strain.

I've seen other writers do this--Ellen Akins, Debra Monroe--and it is such a wonderful thing to be on the receiving end of their intensity and their passion for writing (and great understanding of how it works).

McClanahan opened the session by reciting a poem by William Stafford, "Practice," which begins, "When you stop off at rehearsal you can stumble and still be forgiven. Your shadow practices."

Last night I got all social, going out to dinner with some other nonfiction writers, Shuly and Amy; and a couple of poets, and a screenwriter, at the restaurant right across the walking path from our hotel.
Tacos and beer...

And then the more senior folks in the program had set up a reading slam, like a poetry slam, but for all crafts, in one of the hotel rooms, and so we traipsed off to that and like any slam, some of the pieces were hilarious (most of them) and some had been dashed off while the writer sat in the audience waiting for his turn, and then every now and again one piece just quieted the room and really shimmered. (Those were always poems.)

I read my fox-kills-squirrel piece, boiling it down as much as I could but I still went over the time limit and I think I was within seconds of being tackled, hauled off the stage and stuffed into one of the ice machines, or whatever it is that college students do at a poetry slam.  In the end, all three prizes went to poets, but we'll see about that next year, right Amy?

Tonight, more sociability, with the all-program dinner, and I am already beginning to regret signing up for it. I told Doug this morning, "I can't be social tonight! I was social last night!" And he said, "Some people are social every night." And I thought yeah, but they aren't writers.

No hawk yesterday, and I felt bereft.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Day Two

The red-tailed hawk on his perch high above the campus.

Big old hawk still there, or there again. I wonder if he's the campus mascot? Today when I came out of the first seminar, the clouds had dispersed, the sky was blue, and this guy was absolutely gleaming in the sun. It's not yet warm--right now it is 9 degrees above zero--but the sun felt so good.

Day One was intense, as I think all the days will be.  I started in a Gateway Seminar, which is the seminar that all crafts take together. Today's was on reviewing fiction, and I liked the instructor very much--well-read, well-spoken, self-deprectating, interesting. We discussed the two texts that she had had us read ("Revolutionary Road," a novel by Richard Yates, and "The Collected Short Stories of Robert Walser," which are short, strange stories by an early 20th century writer). I had been baffled by the Walser until I started thinking of them as poems, but the instructor said she thought of them as paintings, an approach I like even better.

Her main point was that personal taste does not enter in to reviewing; you have to meet the writer where he or she is coming from--look at the text for clues as to how to read the piece (as in "Revolutionary Road," where that whole fabulous depressing opening is one big clue).

From there, lunch in the cafeteria, and then off to a seminar by a graduating student. During the final (fifth) residency, each graduating student must turn in a thesis and teach a seminar; this one was on linked short stories--what links them, how they work, how they differ (or don't, much) from novels. (Texts this student used: "Winesburg, Ohio," and "A Visit from the Goon Squad.") I liked her, too. She relied pretty heavily on source material but I think maybe that's how these seminars are supposed to work, and when she was done (precisely thirty minutes by the clock) she gave a beaming smile and said, "And now I am done!" She looked happy.

Campus, and the clock tower where I catch the shuttle bus--or, in the case of yesterday, don't.

I took a walk after that in the chilly sunshine; I didn't have time to go far, and my book bag was heavy, but it felt good to move. And then it was off to the workshop, where my short essay was to be critiqued. We had an hour, and I was pretty sure that we wouldn't fill the time, but instead we went over by about twenty minutes, which was fine: It was interesting hearing how people had reacted to the piece, and what observations the instructor had (Peter Stitt, editor of the Gettysburg Review). I was amused that he praised my punctuation. (And said much more than just that, I hasten to add.)

These critiques are going to be extremely useful--not just getting critiqued, but writing them. When we meet this afternoon it will be in a three-hour block and we will critique three people; that's going to be grueling, I think. You really have to read so carefully, and with an open mind, trying to understand what the writer is intending, and whether or not he or she achieved it. Looking for what worked well is easy; articulating why it worked well is harder. Ditto things that don't work.  It takes me about two hours to write a critique, and they're actually quite short--little line marks on the page, and then a summary of a few hundred words.

Folks were going to meet at the bar last night and I meant to join them, but after I got to my hotel room (with my delicious dinner of Chick-fil-A from the shopping mall across the street) I was cold and tired and I climbed into my pajamas and ...  No, I didn't go to sleep; I worked on critiques, but once in the jammies it's hard to get me out of them. Perhaps I will go to the bar tonight.

My Yahoo e-mail has finally stopped sending me the introductory message from Melissa Bashom, but now it has stopped sending me any messages from her, and so yesterday I missed the very important message that said our shuttle bus stop was moving from the clock tower to a different place. Ah, Yahoo. You were so reliable until that stupid upgrade earlier this year!

Sorry this post is so hastily written but I have to take a shower and finish a critique, and the bus comes in 90 minutes.  Yikes!


Monday, January 6, 2014

Day One


Gigantic mutant hawk, maybe a red-tail.
I know, I said yesterday was Day One, but yesterday was really just wandering around campus trying to get my bearings (and seeing the biggest damn hawk I've ever seen, sixty feet up in a tree and still gigantic) (I also saw two bluebirds--bluebirds! In January!), going to orientation, where we were walked through things like shuttle bus schedules and room assignments and then were given a two minute tour of the campus (by then it was dark, clammy, foggy and cold, so the student giving the tour just stood in one spot and pointed), and then on to the party!

Don't tell me that writers are introverts. There were hugs. Shrieking laughter. Everyone knew everyone else, except us newbies, who clustered in little groups and ate hummus and drank white wine and eyeballed Those Who Are About to Graduate.  Some day, we all thought. That will be us. We also did the all-important Manuscript Exchange, so that we can read one another's work--can, and must. It's a big part of what we will be doing over this week, and over the semester.

These do not look like writerly introverts to me
I came back to the hotel and read four of them, just first reads, and now, Monday morning, I have finished marking up and writing a critique of one manuscript. It took two hours. You can't just say, as one instructor explained yesterday, "this sucks." (Not that it sucked, I hasten to add.)

This morning we'll be talking about fiction reviewing, and I am very interested to hear what the instructor has to say about this mysterious early 20th century fiction writer whose short stories feel to me more like odd poems than stories. And this afternoon, the first workshop session. Guess whose essay is on the block this afternoon: that's right. Mine. See ya all later.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cold and rainy and eating oatmeal

The glorious view from my hotel room window.
I am escaping the epic cold of Minnesota (high today of ten below zero, high tomorrow of fifteen below, lows so low I cannot even mention them) but it is not exactly balmy here in Charlotte. It's cold and gray and drizzly and 34 degrees.

The day before I left, the coordinator for the MFA program sent out a final email to the entire MFA student body--not just us newbies, but everyone. I opened my Yahoo mail to find that I had gotten the message 56 times. And then, while I watched, more arrived. And more. It continues to arrive, always two at a time, though the onslaught has slowed a bit; still, this morning there were more than 50 new messages in my inbox and most of them were from her. I wonder how long this will continue? Yahoo Mail has gotten rid of any way to contact them. I'll just have to keep deleting messages from Melissa Bashor for the rest of my life.

Yesterday's flight was uneventful; on the way to the airport, as we cruised down Lexington Parkway, we passed a house that had two of the most gigantic wild turkeys I have ever seen, just sort of hanging around on the front sidewalk. "Turkey!" I hollered, and Doug was able to see them in his rear-view mirror as we shot on by.

On the plane, sort of binging on fiction before this intense week of nonfiction, I started reading Ruth Ozeki's "A Tale for the Time Being," which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She's coming to town later this month--I can't remember when, but I hope it's a night when I can go hear her. The book is terrific, two parallel stories, one about a girl in Japan shortly before the tsunami, who is keeping a diary, and the other about a novelist named Ruth who finds the diary on a beach off the coast of British Columbia.

It's funny and infuriating and sad, such powerful (and very different) voices, Nao and Ruth, and laced with modern Japanese pop culture and Zen Buddhism (Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest). Since today is rainy and cold, I might spend the morning curled up in my gigantic hotel bed, reading.

The fountain in front of my hotel was frozen.
I walked around a little last night--it was chilly, and there appears to be nothing in the immediate area but shopping mall: a huge Macys, and a Dillard's (which makes me think of Kristin; she loved Dillard's), and a Talbot's and that expensive yuppie kitchen store, what's it called, Williams-Sonoma--all kinds of places that will be of no use to me. I need a grocery store, where I can buy some granola bars or bagels or bananas or something so that I can have a little breakfast in my room and not go bankrupt eating in the hotel restaurant.

(This morning, because it's my first day, I am indulging in room-service oatmeal and grapefruit juice and you'd think it was lobster and steak by the price.)

Later today one of the other students is going to come by in her car (suddenly cars are a huge luxury) and we are going to explore the campus together. Orientation is at 4 p.m., and an opening reception at 6. Tomorrow, the real work begins.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ready for the residency

Sunrise at Como Lake. Cold.

It's Thursday morning, ten degrees below zero, and I'm putting off the dog walk for a half-hour in hopes that the temperature might soar to nine or even eight below.  Last night I walked both dogs at two below, and we trotted along nicely for about 45 minutes under a darkening sky, through the park, on squeaky snow, the occasional ice patch, almost wiped out twice, but didn't.  It was our longest walk in days, and I just couldn't stand another minute of staying still. The dogs don't like the cold (especially Rosie), but they had their jackets, and we kept moving, and it was lovely to be out there, lovely to move after days and days of being cooped up in such bitter cold.

But ten below is different than two below, and at ten below Rosie shivers, even in her little Velcroed-on Vulcan jacket, and I shiver, too, my cheeks and lips and eyeballs freeze, and so the walk is short. The walk today will be short, too.

Rosie on Christmas Eve.
I leave for North Carolina on Saturday afternoon. I think I have done just about everything I need to do to prepare, and over the New Year's Day break (a day and a half), I finished the manuscripts I am submitting for workshopping--finished them enough for workshopping purposes, anyway.  One is about eight pages (the minimum) and the other is twenty-two pages (close to the maximum of twenty-five), and I am not at all sure about either one of them. They are both new pieces that I have written just in the last few weeks. I don't know what they are, exactly--they're memoir, but they're not so much about me as they are about the past, and the power of story. That's all I'll say about them now. They might not go anywhere; they might grow; they might even converge at some point and both become part of the same bigger thing.  But right now they are just two unfinished and rather hastily-written pieces that are sort of floating out there.

I worked them until I was sick of them and didn't know where they were going, and then I emailed them off to my Queens groups. At Queens on Sunday, we will meet the people in our workshop groups, though I have already met a couple of them via Facebook and e-mail.  We will have two groups: a large group, and a small group, and the first half of the week we'll work with the large group and then later in the week we'll move to the smaller group, and the smaller group is the one we'll work with for the entire semester, through the end of May.

The messier, longer, more complicated piece goes to the small group. I figure they'll have a little more time to help me take it apart.

Anyway, I'm just about ready to go. I have my suitcase here at my feet, and right now it has inside of it all of the books I need for the residency and nothing else. I'll pack as many clothes as will fit around the books, which won't be many, and hope that my fellow students don't object (or even notice) if I wear the same thing two or three days out of the ten. Doug bought me noise-reduction headphones for Christmas, and those will be a godsend for the plane and for the hotel; too many nights I have stayed in hotels where the walls were thin and I could hear shouting or phone conversations or television noise or even, one time in Boston, incessant barking, coming through the wall of the room next door.  The headphones will help me block things out, and concentrate.

Ha, look at that! Nine below! Time to walk the dogs.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fretting: It's what I do

Midway through the dog walk on a 42-degree December day,
we stopped for tea at an outdoor cafe.
Down with a cold, stayed home from work on Friday for the first time in at least three years, hoping to knock the cold out with juice and a long nap. But can a person really knock out a cold that way? I slept, I drank juice, but I think a cold simply must run the course it must run, and here's hoping it'll be on its way out by next Saturday, when I fly off to Charlotte.

I missed one day of the the two-day December thaw--it got up to 40 degrees on Friday, and sadly I slept through most of it. Up to 40 again on Saturday, and Doug and I took the dogs for two very long walks, with a stop at a coffee shop for hot tea at an outdoor table. In between and after, more naps for me.

Now the wind is howling, the temperature is dropping (it's three below zero) and it will not be above zero for days. Charlotte will feel balmy, but I will feel guilty, leaving Doug to walk the dogs morning and night, alone, in frigid weather.

Maybe I shouldn't do this!

Yesterday I reread and reworked the two manuscripts I'm bringing; I had thought they were done, but when I read them yesterday, in bed, I realized they were crap, and the big section I had added to the second manuscript clearly did not belong, and I had to unstitch it and surgically remove it (and save it in another file, just in case), and spackle over where it had been. And maybe that's my problem: something that requires stitching and spackling is maybe neither fish nor fowl, and that might be why it's not working very well. But of course if it were effortlessly polished and perfect, I wouldn't need to go to school to make it better, right?

And so I continue to obsess. Which suitcase should I bring? How will I manage to haul all of the necessary books and still have room for clothes? Where and when will I print everything out--multiple copies of my manuscripts, and also the shuttle bus schedule and the campus map and the syllabus and the class schedule and the list of people in my workshops and ...

What if it snows on Saturday? I mean, here? And the flight is delayed? Or canceled?

How will I get from the airport to the hotel--does it really cost $40? Isn't there a cheaper way?

Blah blah blah. You would think nobody had ever traveled before. I'm packing up my obsessions, my fears, my doubts, my anxiety, my Kleenex and my Cold-Eeze, and I'm headed back to bed.